By now it should be clear that the over-arch­ing theme of the SURPRISE FACTORS SYMPOSIUM doesn’t devi­ate from year-to-year. The through-line that con­nects each year is change. How do we antic­i­pate change? How do we make sense of change? How do we use change to make the lives of the peo­ple of Upper Aus­tria – and peo­ple every­where – bet­ter?

This year the famil­iar theme of change came to us with an unfa­mil­iar twist: “Out of Con­trol?” Sim­ply to ask the ques­tion is to acknowl­edge that we are, in many ways, in unex­plored ter­ri­to­ry. In the wake of Brex­it, the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, a ris­ing tide of nation­al­ism stoked by increas­ing inci­dents of ter­ror­ism, it’s not only fair to ask if things are out of con­trol, it’s time­ly and essen­tial.

It’s a ques­tion that invites oth­er ques­tions: Where are we when it comes to world affairs? How did we get here? Are we wit­ness­ing the unrav­el­ing of a series of under­stand­ings, for­mal and infor­mal, that gave us 70 years of rel­a­tive peace and pros­per­i­ty? What hap­pens next?

„What does democ­ra­cy look like in a pic­ture?”

To help explore these ques­tions, ACADEMIA SUPERIOR invit­ed three gift­ed indi­vid­u­als from dif­fer­ent walks of life: Andrea Bruce, an award-win­ning pho­to­jour­nal­ist who has spent more than a decade cov­er­ing the chaos of war in the Mid­dle East; Lord Bri­an Grif­fiths, influ­en­tial pol­i­cy advi­sor to Mar­garet Thatch­er, sea­soned busi­ness leader and mem­ber of the British House of Lords; and Kai Diek­mann, vision­ary jour­nal­ist at the Bild Zeitung, close observ­er of Sil­i­con Val­ley and advi­sor to media plat­forms all over the world. What did we hear?

Even in the most war-torn parts of the world, where bomb­ings and acts of vio­lence tru­ly are out of con­trol, human­i­ty has a way of shin­ing through. There are rit­u­als and prac­tices that cut across cul­tures to con­nect us all – per­haps most pro­found­ly, death, funer­als and mourn­ing. Some­times dai­ly-ness is more com­pelling than the dis­rup­tion of dai­ly-ness: After a bomb went off, there is shat­tered glass, there is demo­li­tion – and then there is the need to sweep up, pick up and car­ry on. There is the recog­ni­tion that images often car­ry emo­tion­al infor­ma­tion that words can nev­er con­vey.

And from Andrea Bruce there is a sug­ges­tion: Democ­ra­cy is at risk if we don’t exam­ine it, under­stand it, engage with it and par­tic­i­pate in it. One way to embrace democ­ra­cy is with a com­mu­ni­ty-based pho­tog­ra­phy project – a project Upper Aus­tria could launch: What does democ­ra­cy mean to you? What does it look like in a pho­to­graph?

„Peo­ple who feel they aren’t being lis­tened to suf­fer a pro­found sense of loss of con­trol.”

We also heard that some­times the feel­ing of a loss of con­trol trig­gers a polit­i­cal event that oth­ers fear rep­re­sents an even greater loss of con­trol. Behind Brex­it was the sense on the part of a major­i­ty of the British elec­torate that they had lost con­trol of their own jus­tice sys­tem and their own immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy. There was a feel­ing of anger, even resent­ment by the “some­where peo­ple” – peo­ple who are root­ed to a par­tic­u­lar place and a par­tic­u­lar way of life – that they were los­ing con­trol in their lives, hav­ing it tak­en away by “any­where peo­ple” – peo­ple who are cit­i­zens of the world, oper­at­ing in the glob­al econ­o­my. Peo­ple who feel they aren’t being lis­tened to suf­fer a pro­found sense of loss of con­trol. Brex­it in part reflect­ed that feel­ing.

From Lord Bri­an Grif­fiths came anoth­er sug­ges­tion: Regions such as Upper Aus­tria should find ways to stand out as their own place. Insist on author­i­ty that allows dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and the abil­i­ty to show­case what makes them unique. And anoth­er: Don’t walk away from voca­tion­al and tech­ni­cal edu­ca­tion in pur­suit of high­er edu­ca­tion. To keep a healthy, thriv­ing mid­dle class means con­tin­u­ing to respect and hon­or the work­ing men and women who make things, fix things, repair things and con­nect things.

„Jour­nal­ists have failed to see the changes in their own line of work com­ing.”

Final­ly, we heard about the inter­sec­tion of media and pub­lic affairs. Here we learned that the media and jour­nal­ism are, them­selves, out of con­trol. The busi­ness mod­el is bro­ken. The tra­di­tion­al monop­oly on news gath­er­ing and news dis­tri­b­u­tion has been dis­rupt­ed. An indus­try that sup­pos­ed­ly thrives on change has resist­ed change. Jour­nal­ists who prize curios­i­ty have retreat­ed from curios­i­ty as it con­cerns their own work and lives. Instead, media today are in the clutch­es of algo­rithms that feed us back more of what we’ve iden­ti­fied as the things we’re inter­est­ed in. As a result, the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion suf­fers. Our abil­i­ty to under­stand and adapt to change is dimin­ished. We become more and more iso­lat­ed in infor­ma­tion bub­bles of our own mak­ing.

„Maybe, in times like these, pes­simism is our friend.”

From Kai Diek­mann we heard a few sug­ges­tions of the way for­ward. We must remem­ber that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is first and fore­most emo­tion­al, not ratio­nal. We need to embrace the real­i­ty of emo­tions, use emo­tions to get impor­tant mes­sages out. Remem­ber that peo­ple are visu­al crea­tures: Images are more acces­si­ble than words. And try to rein­force his­to­ry: We can’t afford to lose track of where we’ve been, how we got to where we are, and what we would lose if we walked away from the hard-learned lessons of the past.

Final­ly, in an “out of con­trol” time, we may need to use pes­simism as a friend – a reminder that bad things can and will hap­pen unless we work even hard­er to make bet­ter things hap­pen instead.